These are dark days. While law schools and Biglaw continue business pretty much as usual, the good people at Law School Transparency continue to track how the lost generation of lawyers with no real job prospects grows every year.

Steven J. Harper, a Harvard Law grad and 30-year litigator at Kirkland & Ellis, has weighed in on the problems and suggested some solutions in The Lawyer Bubble. It’s the perfect book for a terrible time.

If every Biglaw partner, law professor, and law school dean read this book and followed its prescriptions, we just might get our profession back on track. Will it happen? I’m not optimistic. If law was once an honorable profession with a few greedy bad apples, those bad apples have ruined the whole bunch. Law schools and law firms had ethics and pride in doing important work well, and exchanged them for cash and ostensible prestige. Once you cross that line, can you really go back? I’m not sure there’s a parachute to pull us out of this free fall.

But read the book anyway, because Harper’s analysis is spot-on, his writing is mostly terrific, and his prescriptions are thoughtful.

We hates the law schools, we hates them forever

Harper begins, logically, with the law’s “gatekeepers,” the law schools. Like Brian Tamanaha’s insider account, Failing Law Schools, Harper describes in detail the transformation of law schools from academic institutions to cash cows for law professors and universities. It’s all here: the yank-back scholarships, the employment reporting lies, the transfer student scam (transfer students’ LSAT scores don’t count in the US News ranking formula—so their tuition is no-risk school income), the tuition hikes, and on and on. Harper describes it all in a tone that allows him to display both his dispassionate lawyer’s mind as well as subtle but acrid sarcasm.

Harper’s best prescription for law schools is straightforward but explosive: make the law schools underwrite all student loans or become otherwise financially responsible for them. I love this idea. Will it happen? Crickets. Federal law could force this change, but when you realize that Congress is the only solution, you realize there’s probably no solution.

Biglaw: greed is good!

Harper, like others, blames American Lawyer magazine’s revelations of Biglaw partners’ salaries as the beginning of a fundamental change of focus. The Am Law 50 (later Am Law 100) made public what had been private: how much did these people actually make? Ironically, transparency led to negative rather than positive change, as the American need to compete and win whenever numbers, rankings or lists are involved took over.

Meanwhile, “padding” billing hours (translation: defrauding clients) became the dirty secret of the associate’s working life. And the downward spiral continued as unhinged greed and domination by rainmaker partners led to the fall of Dewey & LeBoeuf, which Harper devotes a chapter to here. Notably, Biglaw attorneys have the lowest levels of job satisfaction in the profession. So money buys unhappiness, but the supposedly smartest students at the supposedly best law schools seem to think that being desperately unhappy and well-paid means you are in fact happy. (Someone please explain this to me.)

Harper’s prescriptions for improving Biglaw require Biglaw to decide to improve itself. I’ll leave it to those who work or have worked in Biglaw to decide who (Biglaw or Congress) is a more likely agent of positive change in the legal profession.

Summary

The Lawyer Bubble—A Profession in Crisis
Reviewed by Andy Mergendahl on April 4, 2013.

If there’s any chance for the legal profession to pull itself out of its death-spiral (or at least zombie-spiral), it will be because of books like this: fact-driven, realistic, passionate works by lawyers who have enjoyed all the benefits that lawyering can provide, but who refuse to simply take the money and walk away. Harper has nothing to gain from writing this book, unlike the scam bloggers, who have nothing to lose. So there’s a slim chance that enough powerful people might actually pay attention to make a difference. But don’t bet your paycheck on it.

Price: $18.53 (hardcover) $12.99 Kindle edition
Overall score: 4.5 (out of 5)